Supporting Secondary Students in Building External Models

Project Overview

Supporting Secondary Students in Building External Models (Models) is a three-year, $918,000 project funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF). The purpose of this project is to explore how to support students in building and using models to explain phenomena and understand disciplinary core ideas. Researchers are working to support students by developing and testing a modeling tool and accompanying instructional materials.


Big Ideas

Why Build Models?

The Framework for K-12 Science Education and the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) include student construction of models as one of the key practices that should be integrated with content standards. Currently, students are seldom asked to construct models to explain and predict phenomena in science classrooms. However, studies have shown that model-based reasoning is inherent in how we understand the world around us. It has also been found that students who are more aware of the purpose and nature of scientific modeling are more likely to effectively develop their own mental models. A main goal of this project is to study what kinds of tools, platforms, scaffolding, and pedagogical approaches will help students achieve growth in their modeling skills and understand their application.

Developing New Tools

Researchers are working to develop modeling tools and supporting materials that will be easily usable by both students and teachers. The hope is that the tool will bridge the gap between the internal model and the external. That is to say, a student will easily be able to represent his or her ideas with a model. The tool will allow students to create, test, evaluate, and revise their models using real data gathered from in-class experiments or online databases. Research efforts will involve multiple cycles of designing, developing, testing, and refining the tool and the instructional materials to make sure students meet important learning goals related to constructing dynamic models around core ideas.

Addressing Equity Issues

The Models project also addresses issues of equity. Research and development work will take part in both urban and suburban settings. Some of the school systems serve a population in which most students do not attend post-secondary education, while others serve students with diverse socioeconomic backgrounds. As such, the project will work with teachers and students from a range of backgrounds that reflect the profile of a large portion of the United States. Thus, the modeling tool and curriculum materials will provide the nation with middle and high school resources that support students in developing and using models to explain and predict phenomena. This project will provide new knowledge and materials that will be freely available online, which will help to produce a population of citizens capable of continuing further STEM learning.

Tying in 3-Dimensional Learning

The Models project is at the forefront of an important shift in how science is taught and learned in schools. The Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) are focused on the concept of 3-dimensional learning and how it is essential to STEM education and cross-disciplinary thinking. This project engages learners with 3-dimensional learning by using crosscutting concepts and various scientific practices, integrated with disciplinary core ideas. The crosscutting concepts addressed in the curriculum are: systems and systems modeling, cause and effect, and energy and matter. The scientific practices that are incorporated focus on not just modeling, but also analyzing and interpreting data and engaging in argument with evidence.


The Models Curriculum

The Units

When completed, the curriculum will consist of approximately 10 instructional units that will support students in developing and using models. Each unit will last around two to three weeks and complement the modeling tool. These instructional materials will supplement teachers’ current curriculum to meet performance expectations from NGSS. Researchers will work with teachers to select the performance expectations appropriate for the courses they are teaching. The hope is that in doing so, teachers will be more likely to adopt and adapt these materials.

The Modeling Tool

The systems dynamics modeling tool being developed by The Concord Consortium is called SageModeler. It is being created using the agile development method, an iterative development plan. The tool will run on any modern browser on both desktop and mobile devices, including iPad. To support student understanding of “relationships between variables” models, the tool will feature:

  • A concept diagramming interface for specifying factors and relationships between those factors
  • The ability to specify relationships qualitatively, semiquantitatively, and completely quantitatively
  • Pedagogical scaffolding to help students verbalize in writing the importance of various factors and relationships
  • Interactive manipulation of factor relationships to quickly test “what-if” scenarios.


How You Can Find the Materials

The resources being developed through this project will be available to educators at no cost. The curriculum materials and modeling tool will be disseminated via Concord Consortium’s website and publicized via its print and electronic newsletters.


Project Partners

CREATE for STEM Institute at Michigan State University is joined by The Concord Consortium in this collaborative effort. In addition, teachers from participating schools in Michigan and Massachusetts will work with researchers to design units that mesh with their current curriculum. The project leader from Concord is Mr. Daniel Damelin, and Dr. Joseph Krajcik is the project leader from MSU. They are joined by Dr. Lynn Stephens, Mr. William Finzer, and Mr. Elliot Soloway. The Advisory Committee members include Dr. Helen R. Quinn, Dr. Jim Pellegrino, Dr. John Clement, Dr. Christina Schwartz, Dr. Brian Reiser, and Dr. Ellen Mandinach.


Models Milestones

During its first year, the Models project began designing and developing learning activities and beta modeling software. This was followed by usability testing in both research settings and in schools. Entering the second year, the units and modeling software underwent revisions before pilot testing began in both middle and high schools.

In the third year, researchers will finish developing the tool and units, expand the project to include more schools, and perform field tests. The final portion of the project will focus on data analysis, making final revisions based upon the findings, preparing the materials for dissemination, and writing manuscripts for publication and final reports. It is estimated that the Models project will conclude and materials will be available for dissemination by spring, 2018.


Design Principles

This project uses a learning goals driven design approach. The principles used to guide the development of the materials include:

  • Creating coherence within a unit, within a grade, and across years to build students’ ability to make connections among ideas, explain phenomena, and solve problems
  • Defining learning goals that state how students will use science ideas to successfully develop materials that promote learning
  • Contextualizing instructional units that connect science ideas with the real world in order to help students answer driving questions and explain phenomena
  • Building on prior knowledge and experiences to help students develop the knowledge and skills necessary to understand the core learning goals
  • Developing modeling and simulation software that students can use to build models and help them connect observable phenomena with sub-microscopic mechanisms
  • Incorporating key scientific practices to support scientific learning
  • Designing assessment opportunities for students to gauge their own understanding of core ideas through feedback and reflection


Links to the Next Generation Science Standards

The materials will help students build competency in the scientific practices defined in the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). The curriculum targets the following performance expectations from NGSS:

  • MS-PS1-4. Develop a model that predicts and describes changes in particle motion, temperature, and state of a pure substance when thermal energy is added or removed.
  • MS-LS2-3. Develop a model to describe the cycling of matter and flow of energy among living and nonliving parts of an ecosystem.
  • HS-PS1-6. Refine the design of a chemical system by specifying a change in conditions that would produce increased amounts of products at equilibrium.
  • HS-ESS2-4. Use a model to describe how variations in the flow of energy into and out of Earth’s systems result in changes in climate.